Our Mutual Friends – interview with the creator

Leila Johnston, Managing Editor

Tying together the ephemera of our digital age with the industrial detritus of Dickens’ London, Our Mutual Friends is an original and ambitious new online art project to mark this year’s Dickens centenary. We chatted to Steven Bode, Director of the Film & Video Umbrella.

What is Our Mutual Friends?

Our Mutual Friends is an online project featuring four newly commissioned artists’ pieces that all use different social media platforms and channels to both generate and disseminate the work.

The project plays on the title of Charles Dickens’ final novel, Our Mutual Friend, and picks up two of its central themes – namely, the dirt and debris of the scrapheaps of Victorian London, and, by way of contrast, the superficialities of the salon-society social whirl. I was keen to explore how those two motifs might resonate today – the looming material presence of the riverside ‘dustheaps’ superseded by all the invisible virtual/digital junk and clutter we carry around in our heads/Blackberrys/phones, and the social whirl side extended and accelerated by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. All of these things come with associated followers and friends – a never-ending source, of course, of that very same disposable, throwaway, but insidiously cluttering material.

On your site you say “Instead of the Victorian scrapheaps and ‘dustheaps’ which loom large in the novel […] the project draws parallels between an era of industrial dirt and waste and the apparently disposable and throwaway nature of contemporary digital communication” Do the works in this project then suggest communication is the industry of our times?

There is definitely that allusion, yes. And in a sense it only follows the arc of the way things have been going in so-called ‘post-industrial’ society, with an older manufacturing base replaced by a new service economy, in which information and communication are paramount. We are arguably at a point where keeping up (and keeping up with) that incredible circulation of information can sometimes seem as important (or maybe even more important) than getting to grips with its content. There’s a little echo of Dickens in that, with his parodies and indictments of endless circumlocution, and in Our Mutual Friend, a sense of the circularity of fate, of ‘what goes around comes around’, and of the river (and its flows and tides) as an agent and arbiter of that.

Of course, we may come to discover that the communication industry, and its self-sustaining network of mutual contacts and interests, is itself something of an over-inflated bubble, kept afloat by the old-style dirty material economy of China, which is where you might find the contemporary version of the ‘dustheaps’ of Dickens’ time.

The art pieces are hosted on YouYube, Instagram, Blogger etc. Was this to make a creative point about the transience of social networks, or to find a particular audience? Or both?

Both. Definitely both. We wanted the project to reach a wide audience, through its accessibility, even its apparent, slightly disarming disposability, but also to nudge people a little that by relating to it and consuming it in that way it carried its own self-conscious comment on what they were viewing…

Do you expect these works to be ephemeral? Do they have “built-in obsolescence”, to be returned to the recycling bin of ideas? Is there any way in which digital art can achieve monumental permanence, or is that contrary to its nature?

Again, the ephemerality of the works is part of the point. Although in many cases it is an apparent ephemerality. A passing thought, wrapped up in the form of a quickfire tweet, can seem absolutely transient and disposable but these throwaway thoughts, like all the plastic wrappers we thoughtlessly discard everyday, all add up – and in their thousands (and hundreds of thousands) they definitely have an effect. With digital media, there is an impression that things can be all-too-easily erased or forgotten, and don’t have to be thought about, but, as we know, they always leave some kind of trace.

I was interested in exploring that notion in the project, as a specific theme within some of the artists’ pieces. Also, because Our Mutual Friends is designed to accumulate and proliferate over time, and on different online platforms, we are also keen to see how some of the images themselves might be recycled, or ‘wash up’ in different places across the internet.

Several projects involving Dickens and London maps have cropped up recently. Is our modern technology (GPS etc) finally catching up with Dickens in a way that is helping us to experience his ideas and observations in a more authentic way than before?

Dickens was a great wanderer of the streets of London, and a sharp and trenchant observer of urban life, as writings like Night Walks testify. Like a lot of nineteenth century writers, his journeys through the city were intuitive and instinctive, rather than guided by a map. But I think that technology is helping us to form our own mental maps and associations, and contributing to a more individually distinctive sense of place. We are going to explore this further in Our Mutual Friends through the six Dickens walks that we have put together, and the six different writers (including Henry Hitchings, Philip Hoare and James Bridle) who will follow these routes, and make their own micro-blogs and Tumblrs of what they see along the way.

What was the most enjoyable part of putting together Our Mutual Friends, for you?

Working with a number of extremely talented artists, most of whom were exploring the online medium for the first time, but who really responded to the opportunity with great energy and generosity.

Can you outline any challenges you ran up against?

I’m excited by Our Mutual Friends because I started sensing some new ground here artistically and curatorially. But the feeling of openness and exploration that that brings can often mean that there aren’t obvious signposts or benchmarks for what you are doing, which can make things complicated to explain. The project is very much an experiment for us at Film and Video Umbrella, and I’m greatly enjoying seeing how it turns out. The challenges are still there, in terms of us reaching and widening our possible audience, but we’re looking forward to seeing how it continues to evolve…

How do you think Dickens would have reacted to the project?

He was a writer who always reflected (and occasionally satirised) changing patterns of behavior. On one level, Twitter, Facebook and social media generally might have been one of those ‘bran-new’ cultural phenomena that the chattering-class socialite characters in Our Mutual Friend become laughably over-excited about. But I also think Dickens as an observer of language, and its changing forms, would have been intrigued, and almost certainly as an active participant. I can almost see the young Dickens of Sketches by Boz, or even the late Dickens of The Uncommercial Traveller, taking the form of a blog…

The first Dickens walks go live on the site next week. In the meantime, read a detailed review of the art works by Ralph Rochester, on our Showcase section.

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